12: Playground Sounds (Transcript)

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. And I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank This is Everything Sounds.

*Abbott & Costello Clip*

George Drake Jr. Although routines such as those were a staple of vaudeville, Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First’ sketch was the first that gained widespread fame through a live radio performance in 1938. Due to it’s popularity after that first performance, the duo had to perform it in a number of venues and to do so they had to alter the routine on a whim by constraining or expanding its length for radio, television, or a live audience.

Craig Shank In the years following that 1938 performance, it’s been altered, and parodied on the stage and screen. The routine has been used in various forms on sketch comedy shows, animated series, late night TV, and even some present-day sitcoms.

George Drake Jr. The sketch even made an appearance in a non-scripted event. In a 2007 baseball game, Chin-Ling Hu of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit a base hit and the announcer came over the loudspeaker and said ‘Ok, everybody, all together: Hu’s on first!’ Even kids who may not even know about the origin of the routine or Abbott and Costello, they’ve made their own versions.

George Drake Jr. There will always be re-interpretations, but if you break down the resulting works you’ll find that Abbott and Costello, as well as their time and place in history are all still there at the core.

Craig Shank Today, we’ll learn more about how humorous and fun traditions are carried on and what role can play in everyday life. But to do that, we’ll dig a little bit deeper. We’re interested in the jokes, sounds and songs that we hear and absorb in the years before a routine like “Who’s on First” would even have any appeal to us. To do that, we went to Indiana University to talk to this man….

Fernando Orejuela My name is Fernando Orejuela and I’m a senior lecturer in the Department of Folklore & Ethnomusicology.

George Drake Jr. One of Fernando’s specialties is in an area of study called Children’s Folklore. Folklore is the study of artistic communication. It can include the stories, music, and other customs or art forms that make up the traditions within one culture. Children’s folklore, on the other hand, focuses on the culture of childhood.

Craig Shank Fernando will help us understand the jokes and songs that make up the sounds of the playground. Children’s jokes and songs cover a wide spectrum of subjects and tones, but they can give us a glimpse into childhood development, concerns, and anxieties.

George Drake Jr. Many folklorists are interested in joke cycles, which are jokes that fit within a particular theme. Jokes have been a part of the recorded human culture since at least 1900 B.C. and some would claim that the first jokes came well before that. We can’t say for sure when or where jokes and joke cycles came from, but we do have some clues about how they developed.

Fernando Orejuela There were folk narratives. They were humorous. They were typically with very simple characters and they were not complex in that they didn’t have multiple episodes the way a folk tale might. They were just a simple tale with just one episode and that’s where the joke itself comes from.

Craig Shank Today, children’s jokes are still structurally accessible. Many jokes, especially in early childhood follow a familiar format: The riddle.

Fernando Orejuela It’s a Q and A and it’s quick, it can be witty. The traditional way of thinking about the riddle was that it was lengthier and that there were multiple sentences to kind of obscure or confuse or create a false Gestalt. These riddling joke cycles are a little but more basic, not simplistic, but they’re basic and they’re easier to construct than those more culturally specific riddles.

Craig Shank …and there are different stages that kids go through to comprehend and master the jokes they hear.

Fernando Orejuela Kids start understanding the structure maybe as early as four and five, but don’t master the technique and understand the wit or humor until age eight, but immediately after that you, between eight and nine, they begin decreasing the number of those kind of riddle jokes. However, they don’t stop. They continue.

George Drake Jr. There is one type of joke that we can trace back to Shakespeare. Nearly everyone knows these jokes and enjoys them even if the youngest among us don’t entirely understand them: Knock knock jokes.

Fernando Orejuela I think those are the ones that are earliest to develop because the setup is always the same and you always have a ‘knock knock’ and then there’s something that has to happen for the responser who’s going to answer the door to do something.

George Drake Jr. Young kids understand how knock knock jokes work, but they don’t quite have a grasp on why they are funny. They just make something up and get a response that’s often the same as what a real joke would get. Someone who is older finds humor in the absurdity of their response, but children enjoy getting a positive response in return.

Fernando Orejuela And so that positive reinforcement only trains them to do it again. So, “Knock, knock.” “Who’s There?” “Book.” “Book who?” “I don’t know,” and then someone will respond and laugh because that’s not what they were expecting. It’s kind of cute and as they get older they’ll try to figure out why is the book knocking on the door?

Craig Shank The structure of jokes in joke cycles for kids often have a similar format to knock knock jokes, a question and answer form, but can serve a different purpose.

Fernando Orejuela A lot of times they allow the kid to kind of sublimate anxieties or concerns and so they might be particularly unpleasant or unattractive, especially to adults. So, starting in the early 1970’s, for example, we had Hellen Keller jokes, which are still kind of popular today, but that was a cycle of jokes that kids would tell each other at a time when schools started integrating and allowing kids with certain disabilities to be mainstreamed and they typically are examples of children’s anxieties and expressed through humor….sick humor.

Craig Shank …and some of this humor is truly sick. It’s often based on current events or recent tragedies. They’re often told immediately after a traumatic event or the passing of a public figure. There were joke cycles after the death of Princess Diana, Whitney Houston, Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson and even after 9/11. These jokes may seem edgy or cruel, but for some kids and adults, those jokes cycles may displace some of the burden of dealing with the painful realities of the situation.

George Drake Jr. One type of joke that does seem to appeal to boys is the “Yo momma” joke cycle. Insulting mothers has, like knock knock jokes, been around in some form at least since Shakespeare’s time. An example from his work includes a character calling someone a dog and they respond with, “Thy mother’s of my generation. What she, if I be a dog?” I think that was pretty good.

Craig Shank You are the master of insults in iambic pentameter, but if you’re unfamiliar with what yo momma jokes sound like today, they’re things like, “Yo momma is so old the fire department is on standby when you light her birthday cake.”

George Drake Jr. Oh, no you didn’t!

Craig Shank Yes I did. Or, ”Yo momma is so stupid that when I told her ‘drinks are on the house,’ she went to get a ladder.”

George Drake Jr. Oh, that one’s just mean.

Craig Shank I know.

George Drake Jr. Fernando called these kinds of jokes, “ritualized insults,” and yo momma jokes in particular had a revival thanks in part to television.

Fernando Orejuela There was a kind of a lull in the 1990’s that I had experienced. Most of these jokes that I had learned were from urban centers, mostly African American kids that were performing them. There was a bit of a revitalization thanks to MTV having Yo Momma routine competitions and that brought it back into the mainstream so that you had other kids, not necessarily just African American kids or kids living in urban centers who were practicing it, but now it’s almost a global phenomenon.

George Drake Jr. These jokes may seem mean or cruel, but for some kids, telling a better or funnier Yo Momma joke can be a big deal. They could feel empowered by making others laugh and getting rid of anxiety about their own family life by creating a caricature of someone else’s mother.

Fernando Orejuela So, this was a way to kind of gain power by attacking a friend’s mother or a competitor’s mom.

George Drake Jr. But that can get complicated in different cultures. Remember Fernando mentioning that these jokes became a global phenomenon?

Fernando Orejuela  The interesting thing is that I heard Yo Momma joke routines in West Africa, which was pretty uncommon, especially in Nigeria because mothers are placed on a pretty high threshold, almost worshipful in a lot of ways and insults about mothers would never happen, but this younger generation, probably not in earshot among adults, are practicing what they’ve learned on MTV or the internet.

Craig Shank While we’re talking about the media and the internet, those factors also play a role in shaping the songs and types of activities that kids are engaging in on the playground.

Fernando Orejuela A lot of pretend play today is reenactments of Idol or some other vocal competition television program. Popular culture has always been an important part of kids culture, but I would say that because of the access that they have to it 24/7 on their iPhones, and kids have iPhones just as much as adults do, and they’re constantly playing and texting and getting updates and tweeting. So, they don’t even have to wait to go home or to school to check the computer. It’s right there in their pocket.

Craig Shank Which brings us to playground songs. Folklorists use that term to describe a number of different kid songs.

Fernando Orejuela Playground songs can be anything from hand clap games to ring games…a good number parody songs.

Craig Shank Parody songs cover a lot of ground on their own.

Fernando Orejuela Back in the 70’s, we used to have a song called “Comet.” It was a cleansing product and the jingle was, “Comet..” and we’d sing the song about “Paradise” the jingle. “Comet, it makes your teeth turn green. Comet, it makes you vomit. So buy some Comet and vomit today.” It just played off of the jingle.

George Drake Jr. Some of the songs that used to be common on playgrounds aren’t permitted on school grounds since they are deemed to be inappropriate. Many schools in America have adopted zero-tolerance policies concerning violence or perceived threats due to a number of high-profile school shootings and one of the songs that used to be a staple of the playground that is now disappearing is one that used the melody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and starts with the line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school, we have tortured all the teachers we have broken all the rules.” See what I’m saying?

Fernando Orejuela The song continues to go down to go down to either hang the principal or shoot the principal. For obvious reasons, in a zero-tolerance policy world, you can’t sing those songs. So, kids generally find other ways to reveal or sing or dissent from the status quo that is given to them by the adult world

Craig Shank Part of that status quo includes not talking about taboo topics such as sexuality. Kids will always try to find ways to get around the rules, even when it comes to innocent activities like singing jump rope rhymes.

Fernando Orejuela A lot of those songs have something to do with the adult process, the maturation process and some of them can be a little risque, suggestively sexual, but from a kid’s perspective.

Craig Shank ..and even though many of their songs are being borrowed, copied, or parodied, kids are using their own creativity amongst their peers at the risk of seeming crude or disobedient to adults. They’re trying to deal with changes in their own lives or to improve their social standing by seeming to be more knowledgeable or aware than they may actually be…

Fernando Orejuela I think a lot of those parody songs in particular demonstrate an exaggeration of the importance of maturation and some of those maturations are….displays of maturation are incredibly crass, but they give the suggestion that you know more than you actually do and maybe give you some kid capital because you’re willing to say it or you know the female body or the male body in certain ways.

George Drake Jr.  Fernando and his colleagues get as close as just about anyone can to being accepted and trusted with some of the secrets and codes of childhood. We all had them once, but have either moved on, forgotten, or the rules changed when we weren’t paying attention. As kids, we’re not given the ability to communicate. We learn it from things that are handed down by our parents, teachers, and from being around other children. Conversing is something that is built and things like jokes and playground songs help build a foundation for who we ultimately become.

Craig Shank We’re a product of our genes, but we’re also a product of our experiences. When we were young, much of what we experienced was out of our control. Occasionally, we’d get granted permission to have the freedom to decide how we wanted to spend our time. As adults, we can make those choices as we see fit because now we’re making the rules. We engage in activities or join groups that provide us stability as opposed to the tiny acts of rebellion that we craved in youth. We may resist change for the sake of consistency and comfort as we age, but kids, they can be more flexible.

Fernando Orejuela Culture groups may have a commitment to certain lore and that generation will continue to pass on that culture’s lore for centuries. Kids culture is not that way. Kids culture is always on top of what’s current and you have to be aware of their world view at any given time is going to be changing. Even within a generation. So, it’s always new. There’s always something new and there’s something that’s lost, but something also replaces it.

Craig Shank Fernando Orejuela is a senior lecturer at the IU department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and he teaches courses on children’s folklore, youth subcultures, and hip hop music and culture.

George Drake Jr. Everything Sounds is an independent production. It’s literally just Craig and myself, supported with the help of listeners like you.

Craig Shank Visit everything sounds dot org slash support and find out how you can become an Everything Sounds Audiophile and help keep the show going.

George Drake Jr. If you enjoy the show, you can share it with your friends and write a review on iTunes. You’ll find all of the links you’ll need do that at everythingsounds dot org.

Craig Shank …and find our episode guide and links to our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts on the site as well.

George Drake Jr. Until next time, I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank ..and I’m Craig Shank. Thanks for listening to Everything Sounds.

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